“A- ARE YO_UU C_COLD? THE coachman shouted, his voice fragmented by the jolting of the coach. I-I’m f-fine, th-ank yo-uu, replied Hans, teeth chattering. The coach lamps flickered as the horses sped along the road. Mud flew up from the wheels. The axles twisted in every pothole, and seemed about to snap. Their cheeks puffing, the horses blew clouds from their nostrils. An opaque moon was rolling above the horizon.Hans is an adventurer and translator of literature, never staying long in one place, he is on his way to Dessau, but tired he chooses to stop off for the night in the mysterious city of Wandernburg, fully intent on leaving first thing the next day. Waking late the next morning, he steps out into a city full of the days hustle & bustle, he decides to explore and wanders aimlessly around the city, occasionally loosing his bearings. The day passes without him realising it & he misses his coach. Wandernberg is a strange place with mysterious properties, although it is situated between Berlin & Dessau, it’s precise location is open to interpretation, as it has moved several times & even the streets are constantly in a state of flux, appearing to have the ability to change not only their compass position, but also the location of the buildings within them. This all combines to ensnare Hans, who ends up staying a lot longer than he had intended.
For some time now Wandernburg had been visible in the distance, to the south. And yet, thought Hans, as often happens at the end of an exhausting day, the small city seemed to be moving in step with them,and getting no nearer.”
******************************************He ends up staying the next night & the next, unable to pursue his intended journey, without real intent he ends up prolonging his stay in this city. This leads to him encountering & befriending some of the local residents that cross his path, decreasing his motivation to leave. Through one of his new friends, he meets the the beautiful Sophie Gottlieb, an intelligent, well read, poetry loving, independent young woman, whom Hans falls deeply in love with, a perfect match one would think, except, there is a fly in the ointment, Sophie is betrothed to another.
Although at the heart of this book is this love affair, it is merely the core around which everything revolves, much of this book takes place in Sophie’s Literary salon & through this medium we hear discussions covering everything from individual freedom to national sovereignty, they debate philosophy, music, they talk about books & censorship, argue about women’s rights & the working class. We follow this relationship as they use language to probe & decipher each other, they meet in his inn room under the cover of translating poetry.
In my interview with Andrés Neuman, he said about this book, “the novel tells a love story between two translators, Sophie and Hans, who can’t stop translating everything: words, gestures, intentions, silences. In the beginning, they don’t know that the other is a translator too, but they connect through their obsessively translating approach to reality. They start to get more intimate, until they settle the routine of locking themselves in a bedroom in order to translate poems and fuck, fuck and translate poems (not a bad plan I think!). And they start to realize how similar can love and translation be. Loving someone implies putting the other person’s words into ours; struggling to completely understand them and (unavoidably) misunderstanding them; founding a common, fragile language. Whereas translating a text implies a deep desire towards it; a need of possessing it and cohabiting with it; and both (translator and translated one) end transformed.”, making this book an exploration of the idea of “Love as a metaphor of translation, translation as a metaphor of love”
“During the four hours they spent alone three times a week, Hans and Sophie alternated between books and bed, bed and books, exploring one another in words and reading one another’s bodies. Thus, inadvertently, they developed a shared language, rewriting what they read, translating one another mutually. The more they worked together, the more similarities they discovered between love and translation, understanding a person and translating a text, retelling a poem in a different language and putting into words what the other was feeling. Both exercises were as happy as they were incomplete – doubts always remained, words that needed changing, missed nuances. They were both aware of the impossibility of achieving transparency as lovers and as translators. Cultural, political, biographical and sexual differences acted as a filter. The more they tried to counter them, the greater the dangers, obstacles, misunderstandings. And yet at the same time the bridges between the languages, between them, became broader and broader.”
What is amazing about this book is that this is just one aspect, I could mention the organ grinder, Han’s first friend & yet regarded by most as an old beggar. Through him Hans learns of the natural world via the discussions held in the cave the man lives in, and in one of those lump in the throat moments we follow the organ grinder as he fades away & dies despite, Hans doing everything he can to save him, or that there is a sub plot about a sexual predator furtively prowling the streets of Wandernburg, whilst being pursued by a father & son cop team, allowing for some great comic dialogue between the two as they detect & finally catch the culprit.
Attempting to pin down & define all that goes on in this book isn’t easy, as I said in my interview it seems to encompass everything – Do you like Philosophy✓, History✓, Politics✓, Romance✓, Translation✓, Poetry✓, and yet this isn't some dry intellectual exercise, it seethes with passion whether this is the love affair of the two main protagonists, or the ideas pouring off the pages. In fact it would be harder to find a reader that would not find this a wonderful, fantastic and a totally absorbing read.
Andrés Neuman has written four novels, four short-story collections and several collections of poetry, all published since 1998. Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, his family later emigrated to Granada, where he still lives. this his fourth novel, El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century) won Spain's two most prestigious literary awards, the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize.
Andrés Neuman (Official)
Words Without Borders (A.N)
Andrés Neuman at The Parrish Lantern